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The Last Classical Physicist
Still there are moments when one feels free from one's own identification with human limitations and inadequacies. At such moments, one imagines that one stands on some spot of a small planet, gazing in amazement at the cold yet profoundly moving beauty of the eternal, the unfathomable: life and death flow into one, and there is neither evolution nor destiny; only being. —ALBERT EINSTEIN
AS A YOUNG boy growing up in suburban Philadelphia, I had few heroes. Albert Einstein was one of them. Reading about Einstein in the newspapers and Sunday supplements, I learned he was working on a unified field theory, whatever that was. Before Einstein, scientists thought that space went on forever—that the universe was infinite. But what Einstein proposed, what really excited me, was the notion of the curvature of three- dimensional space, for that meant that the universe could be finite.
Imagine that you are in an airplane flying above the surface of our earth. If you fly long enough in a straight path in any direction, you return to your starting point, going around the world in a circle. The surface of our earth may be viewed as two-dimensional curved space, a finite surface that closes on itself without a boundary or edge. It's harder to visualize a three-dimensional curved space closing on itself in the same way, but we can imagine flying into the universe in any direction, maintaining a steady course, and eventually returning to our starting point. As in our round-the-world flight in the airplane we would never encounter a physical boundary, a stop sign that says the universe ends here. Einstein in his general theory of relativity proved that the three-dimensional space of our universe can curve around itself and be finite just like the curved surface of the earth.
My friends and baseball companions thought I was crazy when I explained this to them, but I felt confident and pleased because I had Einstein backing me up. Later I learned that Einstein, anticipating such appeals to his authority, once ironically remarked, "For rebelling against every form of authority Fate has punished me by making me an authority."
I never met Einstein. He had died by the time I went to Princeton University to major in physics. But I have spoken with his friends and collaborators, many of whom were refugees like himself. Einstein was present at the birth of twentieth-century physics. One might say he fathered it.
Twentieth-century physics grew out of the previous "classical" physics inspired by the work of Isaac Newton in the late seventeenth century. Newton discovered the laws of motion and gravitation and successfully applied them to describing the detailed motion of the planets and the moon. In the century following Newton's discoveries, a new interpretation of the universe emerged: determinism. According to determinism, the universe may be viewed as a great clockwork set in motion by a divine hand at the beginning of time and then left undisturbed. From its largest to its smallest motions the entire material creation moves in a way that can be predicted with absolute accuracy by the laws of Newton. Nothing is left to chance. The future is as precisely determined by the past as is the forward movement of a clock. Although our human minds could never in practice track the movement of all the parts of the great clockwork and thus know the future, we can imagine that an all-knowing mind of God can do this and see past and future time laid out like a mountain range.
This rigid determinism implied by Newton's laws promotes a sense of security about the place of humanity in the universe. All that happens—the tragedy and joy of human life—is already predetermined. The objective universe exists independently of human will and purpose. Nothing we do can alter it. The wheels of the great world clock turn as indifferent to human life as the silent motion of the stars. In a sense, eternity has already happened.
As strange as it seems today, complete determinism was the only conclusion that could be reasonably drawn from classical Newtonian physics. Even the great scientific advances of the nineteenth century—the theory of heat called thermodynamics, and the theory of light as an electromagnetic wave by the Scottish physicist, James Clerk Maxwell—were worked out within the framework of deterministic physics. These theories were among the last triumphs of classical physics. They are today still seen as major achievements, but the deterministic world view they supported fell. It fell not because of some new philosophy or ideology, but because by the end of the nineteenth century experimental physicists contacted the atomic structure of matter. What they found was that atomic units of matter behaved in random, uncontrollable ways which deterministic Newtonian physics could not account for. Theoretical physicists responded to these new experimental discoveries by inventing a new physical theory, the quantum theory, between 1900 and 1926.
When the earliest version of the quantum theory was formulated in 1900 it was not clear that a clean break with Newtonian physics was inevitable. Attempts were made between 1900 and 1926 to reconcile the quantum theory of atoms with deterministic physics. Physicists hoped that even the tiniest wheels of the great clockwork, the atoms, would obey Newton's deterministic laws. After 1926 it became clear that a radical break with Newtonian physics was required, and determinism fell.
Like Isaac Newton two centuries before him, Albert Einstein is a major transitional figure in the history of physics. Newton accomplished the transition begun by Galileo, from medieval scholastic physics to classical physics; Einstein pioneered the transition from Newtonian physics to the quantum theory of atoms and radiation, a new non-Newtonian physics. But the irony was that Einstein, who opened the route to the new quantum theory that shattered the deterministic world view, rejected the new quantum theory. He could not intellectually accept that the foundation of reality was governed by chance and randomness. Yet Einstein had led the tribe of physicists through a period of struggle into the promised land of the quantum theory, a theory which he could not see as giving a complete picture of physical reality. Einstein was the last classical physicist.
Why did Einstein reject the interpretation of the new quantum physics—the ultimate randomness of reality—when most of his fellow scientists accepted it? Any answer to this question cannot be simple. Einstein's rejection reflects not just his rational choice but also the roots of his personality and character formed during his childhood in Germany. By examining his childhood we find clues to his later persistent adherence to the classical world view.
Einstein was born in Ulm, Germany, on March 14, 1879, into a middle-class Swabian Jewish family. Shortly thereafter, his family moved to Munich, where Einstein's father started a small electrochemical business. Einstein was not an exceptional child and had a poor memory for words, often repeating the words of others softly with his lips. His mind played with spatial rather than linguistic associations; he built card towers of great height and loved jigsaw puzzles. When he was four his father gave him a magnetic compass. Seven decades later, in his "Autobiographical Notes" appearing in the volume Albert Einstein: Philosopher-Scientist he recalled the wonder that this compass inspired; it "did not at all fit into the nature of events which could find a place in the unconscious world of concepts...."
Einstein's mother and father encouraged the young boy's curiosity. In a psychoanalytic study of Einstein's childhood, Erik Erikson called him "Albert, the victorious child." Something in Einstein's character and upbringing encouraged a profound sense of trust in the universe and life. That trust and the confidence it brings is the foundation of the autonomous mind living at the boundary of human knowledge.
His family had a liberal secular orientation. They were not especially intellectual but they respected learning and loved music. His parents, not being religiously observant, sent the young boy to a Catholic school, where he became involved with the ritual and symbolism of religion. This involvement was not to last. He wrote about his early emotional and intellectual odyssey from religion toward science when he was sixty-seven. These "Autobiographical Notes" display a simplicity and strength that characterizes his prose:
Even when I was a fairly precocious young man the nothingness of the hopes and strivings which chases most men restlessly through life came to my consciousness with considerable vitality. Moreover, I soon discovered the cruelty of that chase, which in those years was much more carefully covered up by hypocrisy and glittering words than is the case today. By the mere existence of his stomach everyone was condemned to participate in that chase. Moreover, it was possible to satisfy the stomach by such participation, but not man in so far as he is a thinking and feeling being. As the first way out there was religion, which is implanted into every child by way of the traditional education-machine. Thus I came—despite the fact that I was the son of entirely irreligious (Jewish) parents—to a deep religiosity, which, however, found an abrupt ending at the age of 12. Through the reading of popular scientific books I soon reached the conviction that much in the stories of the Bible could not be true. The consequence was a positively fanatic [orgy of] freethinking coupled with the impression that youth is intentionally being deceived by the state through lies; it was a crushing impression. Suspicion against every kind of authority grew out of this experience, a skeptical attitude towards the convictions which were alive in any specific social environment—an attitude which has never again left me, even though later on, because of a better insight into the causal connections, it lost some of its original poignancy.
It is quite clear to me that the religious paradise of youth, which was thus lost, was a first attempt to free myself from the chains of the "merely personal," from an existence which is dominated by wishes, hopes and primitive feelings. Out yonder there was this huge world, which exists independently of us human beings and which stands before us like a great, eternal riddle, at least partially accessible to our inspection and thinking. The contemplation of this world beckoned like a liberation, and I soon noticed that many a man whom I had learned to esteem and to admire had found inner freedom and security in devoted occupation with it. The mental grasp of this extra-personal world within the frame of the given possibilities swam as highest aim half consciously and half unconsciously before my mind's eye. Similarly motivated men of the present and of the past, as well as the insights which they had achieved, were the friends which could not be lost. The road to this paradise was not as comfortable and alluring as the road to the religious paradise; but it has proved itself as trustworthy, and I have never regretted having chosen it.
What this passage reveals is a conversion from personal religion to the "cosmic religion" of science, an experience which changed him for the rest of his life. Einstein saw that the universe is governed by laws that can be known by us but that are independent of our thoughts and feelings. The existence of this cosmic code—the laws of material reality as confirmed by experience—is the bedrock faith that moves the natural scientist. The scientist sees in that code the eternal structure of reality, not as imposed by man or tradition but as written into the very substance of the universe. This recognition of the nature of the universe can come as a profound and moving experience to the young mind.
Many intellectual biographies of the turn of the century record a similar conversion. The symbols of religion and family are replaced by those from literary, political, or scientific culture. The formative event is the assertion of the individual's autonomy against parental, social, or religious authoritarianism. For Einstein this event took the form of liberating himself from a random existence "dominated by wishes, hopes and primitive feelings." He turned to the contemplation of the universe, a magnificent and orderly system that was, in his view, completely determined and independent of human will. The classical world view of reality fulfilled the needs of the young Einstein. The idea that reality is independent of how we question it may have been instilled in him then. This early commitment to classical determinism was to be the theme of his later opposition to the quantum theory, which maintains that fundamental atomic processes occur at random and that human intention influences the outcome of experiments.
When he was twelve Einstein received Euclid's geometry, "the holy geometry book," from his Uncle Jacob, and now Euclid became his Bible. Euclid's geometry appeals to reason, not authority or tradition. The new way of thinking attracted Einstein, and he became strongly antireligious and challenged the school's authoritarianism and discipline. No doubt the boy was a difficult student. He detested the military organization of German schools. He was rarely found in the company of children his own age, and once was even expelled from school by a teacher who said his mere presence in the classroom was sufficient to undermine the educational process.
When Einstein was fourteen, his father's business failed and the family moved to Italy. Albert did not at first join them but remained in Munich during 1894 attempting to finish school at the gymnasium. But he became a school dropout by the end of the year, joined the family in Italy, and spent most of the next year wandering in Italy, assuming his gymnasium teachers' recommendation would suffice to get him into a university. It did not, and he had to take an exam to enter Zurich Polytechnic Institute, which he failed. Then in the fall of 1895 he entered the Cantonal School of Argau, a Swiss preparatory school in the liberal Pestalozzi tradition to which he responded enthusiastically. Here he got his diploma, and in 1896 he entered the Zurich Polytechnic Institute to begin his education as a physicist.
Sometime in this year he first asked himself the question of what would happen if he could catch up to a light ray—actually move at the speed of light. The prevailing theory of light at that time—still valid today—was Maxwell's theory that light is a combination of electric and magnetic fields that move like a water wave through space. Einstein knew Maxwell's theory of light and the fact that it agreed with most experimental data. But if you could catch up to one of Maxwell's light waves the way a surfboard rider catches an ocean wave for a ride, then the light wave would not be moving relative to you but instead be standing still. The light wave would then be a standing wave of electric and magnetic fields that is not allowed if Maxwell's theory is right. So, he reasoned, there must be something wrong with the assumption that you can catch a light wave as you can catch a water wave. This idea was a seed from which the special theory of relativity grew nine years later. According to that theory, no material object can attain the speed of light. It is the speed limit for the universe.
In 1900, Einstein graduated from the university, but only by cramming for final exams. He detested the exams so much that he later commented that it had destroyed his motivation for scientific work for at least a year. He held various teaching jobs and tutored two young gymnasium students. Einstein went so far as to advise their father, a gymnasium teacher himself, to remove the boys from school, where their natural curiosity was being destroyed. He didn't last in that job.
Through a friend, he got a job at the patent office in Bern in 1902 while he worked on his doctorate. He earned his living examining patent applications and in his spare time worked on physics. This arrangement ideally suited him, for he never felt he ought to be paid to do theoretical physics research. In this modest way his career in physics began.
Theoretical physics at that time was dominated by the classical deterministic world view which had produced the great achievements of nineteenth-century physics—the theory of heat and Maxwell's electromagnetic theory. There was every reason to suppose it would continue. A major theoretical problem was how to deduce the laws of mechanical motion of electrically charged particles from the electromagnetic theory.
Excerpted from THE COSMIC CODE by Heinz R. Pagels. Copyright © 1982 Heinz R. Pagels. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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Posted March 10, 2014
The Cosmic Code by Heinz Pagels is a very enjoyable book to read if you would like to perceive the world in a new and unimaginable way. This book breaks down the basic components of quantum physics in an extremely helpful and comprehensible way. For anyone who enjoys finding out what the math behind science is trying to say, this is a great book to choose to read. There is very minimal math that is used to explain quantum physics. This book takes you from topics such as deterministic beliefs, to the special theory of relativity, and to areas such as wave mechanics and matrix mechanics. This book takes you from physicists such as Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Max Born, and Erwin Schrödinger. It helps to understand the long journey that these physicists experienced in order to come to a general agreement on how the universe truly works. The book reviews interesting phenomenons such as the “Twin Paradox”, in which clocks are said to move slower at accelerating speeds. Quantum weirdness is also discussed and explained in the best possible way. Another great aspect of the book is that it helps understand quantum physics as a whole by giving very visual and helpful examples. Since trying to understand the world at a quantum level is not necessarily in our nature, real-life examples help to identify what is actually happening.
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Posted May 9, 2014
This one of my favorite books. Pagels takes your prior knowledge and destroys it with quantum physics.
I love science and this book has increased this love even more. I cant stress enough my love for this book.
Release what you already know and let Pagles take you on a journey through the cosmic code.
Posted December 9, 2012
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